food

Aug 10, 2018

What gender is your Dragon Fruit

Uncle’s Shorts mega-compendium: Nos. 20-27

This week, after a brief hiatus, we welcome back Uncle’s Shorts with a vengeance! Or, at least a compendium. There’s a lot of ground to cover, a little complaining, a little explaining … you know, the vlog basics. Just remember, your suspicions are correct: All foreigners know each other. Noodles to you!

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their 十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But it’s China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days.

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

Mar 9, 2017

The easiest border crossing we know

Exploring new areas in Hong Kong

This apartment building was cool enough to stop us.
We thought this apartment building was pretty cool looking, so we stopped for a photo. A local tapped me on the shoulder to point out …

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hong Kong. I was an unrepentant Anglophile, and fascinated by its colonial English roots.

These days, I’m really attracted to spaces that seem caught between two worlds, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to have been to HK a lot. As is well documented, Peter and I have fallen completely for Lamma Island. This most recent trip, however, we stayed for the first time on the Kowloon Peninsula, the northern bit of the city part of Hong Kong. We bunked down in the infamous Chungking Mansion — a commercial building with approximately 5,000 cheap guesthouses crammed into every nook and cranny. Our room was spacious, for a sea voyage, but the price was right.

Kowloon, especially the Kowloon City neighborhood, has a large immigrant community, which means — food from all over! The Indian Curry King, who lived up to his name, was our best meal of the trip. Also serving food was Ebeneezer’s Kebabs & Pizzeria. It’s a good name.

Our unofficial mission for the two-day trip was to track down a Marvel Legends Iron Fist action figure. Peter has been checking our Luzhou Toys “R” Us for months now, to no avail. (And, yeah, Luzhou has a Toys “R” Us now.) We got lost all over the place and at one point ended up at a Ruby Tuesday’s for onion rings. It’s amazing the places a good quest will take you.

In the end, we never found that figure. But we did find Pizza Express! A British chain that serves a pretty decent tomato sauce on their pie. (Their crust could do with a little more time in the oven, but this is pizza in Asia, so we’ll take it.)

The famous Tiger's Head Rock, which needed to be pointed out to us.
… we were missing the real view of Tiger’s Head Rock directly behind us.

Feb 28, 2017

The restaurant business is a tough game

Our corner of the sky goes through some changes

The new gang at New Friends
We’ve met a new gang at New Friends.
Four rivers, for rent
We were sad to stumble upon a Four Rivers that was “for rent.”
We met Dave at Old Friends
Emily, with our friend Dave, outside of Old Friends in busier times.

There’s a corner in Luzhou, behind the supermarket, just on the Changjiang river, where we’ve spent more time than anywhere else. Wrapped around it were two restaurants: Four Rivers and Old Friends. Over our five years here, we split our time between these two places, watching the people, talking about life, making important decisions. And now, they’re gone.

We’ve lost restaurants before. In fact, just opposite that very corner years earlier, that weird churrascaria we liked — with the fresh-brewed German-style beer — turned into a seafood restaurant that we didn’t particularly care for. But these two places were near and dear to our heart, and it was really sad to see them both go, especially just one after the other.

Four Rivers was not called that. But we called it that, after a confusing conversation with a young girl who stopped to chat with us there. It was a well-known place in Luzhou, she and many others told us. They faced out toward the river, and served traditional Sichuan food that was just slightly fancy; our favorites were the corn, and the pork rolls. They also did a great vermicelli and mustard greens soup. With just enough spice.

We went there for my first birthday in China. At that time, just four months in, it was the furthest afield we had ventured, and one of the first meals we had eaten on our own that wasn’t 串串. After we moved out to the countryside, it became a place where we frequently whiled away lazy afternoons post-big city grocery shop. And it was a major stop on our “Is it all still here?”-tour after going there and back again. The staff gave us a friendly 好久不见 that really meant a lot to us. But now, there are for rent signs in the window, and we never did get to try their crawdads.

On the inland side of the corner, we found Old Friends. Their deal was modern Sichuan food for the young and upwardly mobile. The first time we went there, we sat down for lunch and stayed through dinner. We came back again the next day for more. Beautiful spicy chicken wings, oxtail and tomato soup, silky mashed potatoes, pineapple fried rice, and this crudité platter with paper-thin tofu skins that was just fantastic. The chef, we came to learn, had worked in Germany, and was applying the western techniques that he had learned to local dishes.

Because we were there so often — twice a week and most holidays, at the height of our mania — we became friends with the owner, Kristy. She even drove us to the airport when we left for Lijiang. And she’s kept us updated on her goings on, which mitigates the sadness, somewhat. Since we’ve been gone, she placed Old Friends in the hands of her sister to go run a 串串 franchise. She even got a grant from the city government to do so. Oh, and she also runs a successful seafood restaurant that imports shellfish daily from Guangzhou. But Sister’s heart wasn’t in Old Friends, so they made the decision to close down a few months ago. We miss that oxtail soup. But we still have Kristy.

Change doesn’t always mean saying goodbye, however. This Chinese New Year’s Eve, with no plan for the fact that so many restaurants are closed that night (some things don’t change), we found ourselves wandering in the vicinity of our old corner. The lights were on, and people were bustling in and out of the spot where Old Friends used to be. It was a new 串串 place. They gutted the inside of all of Kristy’s hip decor, though they kept the long bench that ran along one side wall, a bench that knows our butts well. We stayed for dinner that night and came back for a lunch the next week. The new owners are wonderfully friendly, and the food is so good we can almost forgive them for not being our old hangout. Among ourselves, we’ve taken to referring to the place as New Friends.

Jun 15, 2016

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Let’s make some zongzi with the grannies

Jun 14, 2015

Goodbye to Vietnam, back in China in time for the New Year

After all this time, finally leaving Baiyun International Airport

Some delicious noodle soup in a Guangzhou alleyway was just what my cold wanted.
The view from the Lazy Gaga hostel in the center of Guangzhou city
Check out the view from our hostel window. We stayed at the Lazy Gaga, mostly because it was called Lazy Gaga. But it turned out to be a great place to stay, right in the city center. The staff, in particular, was super friendly and helpful.
Canton TowerThere are crazy rides at the top of the Canton Tower.
The Canton Tower — at 600 meters tall, the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world — was one of the few local attractions that was open during the holiday. Also, we had seen it on a recent season of “The Amazing Race,” so we had to check it out. At the top, there are some crazy rides.
Our international New Year's Eve dinner
Our brand new Chinese friends, from far-flung corners of the country, treated us to a New Year’s Eve BBQ feast.

Guangzhou, in southeast China, was the last stop on our trip, between Vietnam and home. It’s the vibrant capital city of Guangdong (formerly romanized as Canton) Province, world famous for it’s cuisine. For us, this was an exciting chance to leave the somewhat terrible Baiyun International Airport — a place we’ve layed-over about half a dozen times in the past few years. Though, after 16 days on the road and a contracting mild colds, we were determined to take it easy.

Guangzhou was happy to cooperate. We landed a few days before Chinese New Year, and the city had that the-extended-family’s-home-and-a-lot-of-stuff-is-closed feeling that you find in America in the run up to Thanksgiving. A kind of relaxed frenzy; the streets were busy with happy relatives trying to find something to do. We took in the sights and snacked our way through the city center.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful, clear night, and Guangzhou is far enough south that the weather was quite warm in February. Walking by the Pearl River, we fell in with a group of young Chinese travelers who invited us to dinner. Traditionally in China, Spring Festival is a time for family, but in recent years, more and more young people are using the time off to explore their country, and abroad.

Over BBQ, we shared our stories, making quick friends of strangers in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. We had all been brought together that day by Luo Ao from Xi’an, who had left his phone number at reception, looking for someone to have tea with. Our ringleader was a soft-spoken young man, pale with boyishly chubby cheeks. He told us that he was studying technology at university in Chengdu, but that his dream was to transfer to school in Leicester, England. It was a dream deferred, however, as he recently failed the IELTS. But he is determined to try again.

Sheng Gaole — “Call me Lawrence,” he said — from the eastern city of Hefei in Anhui province, had been the first to answer Luo Ao’s invitation. He was a tall and angular fellow whose whose calm demeanor belied a rebellious streak; traveling alone in Guangzhou against strict orders from his father, he was making plans to go and visit a friend in Ohio. His father was ready for Lawrence to settle down and get married, but Lawrence wasn’t having it. “You are so free,” he told us wistfully, as we shared our own stories.

By coincidence, Kevin Lee and Quan Hui were originally from the same small city in inner Mongolia, though they had only just met tonight. Quan Hui, by far, was the quietest of the bunch. She said that she had studied English in university, but after a few years, it was starting to fade. She was happy just to soak up the conversation, I think. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite confident in his speaking ability. Another recent graduate, he works as an engineer at a firm in Shenzhen with many international connections. He may even get sent abroad, a possibility that really seemed to excite him.

The night was festive but not too wild. We toasted the holiday and each other, and ordered more and more food until everyone was very full. We talked about our jobs, our lives, and our dreams. “When do you stop getting the hong bao?” I asked, referring to the traditional red envelope full of cash given to children at this time of year. “When you get married,” said Quan Hui. “When you get a job,” said Lawrence.

When the meal was over, our four companions consulted over the check with our waitress. At the conclusion, they informed us that it was their treat, and that they got a bargain, too! It was a Happy New Year all around. They bundled us into a cab, and we were home in time for midnight. A group of travelers crowded the couch in our hostel lobby, watching the annual CCTV New Year spectacular. We, however, headed up to bed and listened for the illegal fireworks that never came; because Guangzhou is far enough east that rules are followed.

Apr 29, 2015

Taking it easy further north

The relaxed, international flavor of Đà Lat

Peter, eating "bird" at Chu Quán.
Peter, eating “bird” at Korean-Vietnamese BBQ place Chu Quán.
Delicious tom yam soup and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.
It was a bit touristy, but we had delicious tom yam and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.

In contrast to Phạm Ngũ Lão, Đà Lạt’s backpacker scene was much more relaxed and integrated with the city around it. There was still a small neighborhood glutted with western bars, hostels, and restaurants — down Trương Công Định street, if you’re looking — but the gravity of the area was not so strong. We kind of spent our time in the city traversing between International World and Localville. We watched live one night — in a bar full of Russians — as CNN reacted to Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show.” But we also successfully stumbled through the all-Vietnamese menu at an up-and-coming BBQ joint.

Given Đà Lạt’s size — small — we did wander down Trương Công Định at some point just about every day. And our usual destination was The Hangout, a bar billed as the homebase of the local Easy Riders. In actuality, its clientele consists mostly of the enthusiastic, but inexpert young travelers who’d spent the day touring the countryside with the motorbike guides; their ripped up legs told the story of a lot of falling down. But it was a chill place for a beer or two. Decidedly less shady than the backpacker bars of HCMC.

Another regular stop, a few streets over, was the Liên Hoa Bakery. They offered a wide range of French-style pastries. Fruit tarts, fresh donuts, croissants, cookies, cakes … I had to limit myself to two per day. Mostly because I wanted to save some room for the bakery’s made-to-order bánh mì. Peter would go with paté and vegetables, while my favorite was the BBQ pork. They buttered their bread as well, which was a fantastic touch. Guys, I just love sandwiches.

But we found a lot of good meals, all around town. On the suggestion of our hostel owners, we had lunch one afternoon at Vinh Loi, a folding table and plastic chairs kind of place that specializes in doing the basics well. Back on Trương Công Định, we had dinner at Góc Hà Thành, a restaurant that trumpeted its Lonely Planet endorsement on a large banner out front. Locals do not come here anymore, if they ever did. But the food was really good. Peter and I shared a dill lemon chicken dish and a tom yam shrimp soup — which is actually a Thai dish, but whatever. It was super sweet and delicious.

Our favorite meal — one so nice, we ate it twice — was at Chu Quán, the aforementioned BBQ establishment. The owner, we read, was going for a Korean-Vietnamese fusion, and I’ll tell you, it worked for us. The showstopper there was the Bò Sặc, a spicy beef dish cooked on a hot stone at the table. Each time a party ordered one, the whole room filled with choking, acrid smoke. (In a fun way!) That was a little too intense for us, though, so we went with a dish our waiter translated into English as “bird.” The table next to us had one, and it looked good.

“Bird” is probably squab, and it was served in a caramelized spice rub. We cut it up ourselves with large kitchen shears, which was a little discomfiting. The meat was tender for such a little guy, but that spice really packed a punch. The dish came with soy and chili dipping sauces, and side of mint and cucumber as a palate refresher. “Every bite has a strategy,” Peter said.

Rounding out the meal was a noodle and vegetable dish that was pretty good, but was definitely overshadowed by “bird,” and some just-perfect French fries, Vietnamese style, with an orange chili sauce and mayonnaise. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention our starter: a black sesame rice cake with green chili sauce. Maybe one of Peter’s favorite discoveries of the whole trip. (Can you guess what mine was? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with bánh and ends with mì.)

We were truly sad to leave Đà Lạt. It’s just a really friendly, charming place. On our last full day, another Easy Rider chatted us up. When we told him that we were leaving, he joked-not-joked that a motorbike ride back down to Saigon would be way more fun that flying. He was probably right, but “not with my back,” Peter said. The Easy Rider laughed, mounted his bike, and zoomed off down the road.

Apr 19, 2015

With some help, we go off the map in Đà Lat

Learning the language makes getting lost fun

Nem nướng -- hand-rolled spring rolls
Sausages and crunchy bits
Top: The components of nem nuong; Above: The sausage and the crunchy bits
A friend shows Peter how to roll the nem nuongDip it and it's delicious
A passing delivery woman saw us struggling and helped us roll our nem nuong.
The Crazy HouseThe Crazy House
The Crazy House was just as advertised.
One of the rooms available at the Crazy House
You could stay in a crazy room at the Crazy House.
Ongoing construction at the Crazy House
The Crazy House is under perpetual expansion.

“There’s a stairway back there. It may take you where you’ve already been, though.”
— A visitor to Đà Lat’s Crazy House

To prepare for our trip, I spent about a month and a half taking Vietnamese lessons and listening to Voice of Vietnam radio to accustom my ear to the language. I really like the way it sounds. Vietnamese comes from the back of the throat, giving it a guttural, staccato quality. Consonants are much softer than they are in English. There are six tones, both rising and falling. When spoken, the sounds tumble jauntily around.

Now, I knew going in that this would be of limited use. Six weeks is hardly enough time to become conversational, let alone fluent, and English is pretty much the de facto language of tourism in Vietnam. We overheard travelers from all over the world speak among themselves in Mandarin, Russian, German, etc., and then turn around and do business with the Vietnamese proprietor in English. (What happened to French? This generation studies it in school, but your man on the street doesn’t speak it any more. I was proud to serve as a French/English translator at a food stall one afternoon. ‘Cause I speak at least six weeks’ worth of ALL THE LANGUAGES!)

But being able to communicate in Mandarin has made our Chinese travels so much richer, and I didn’t want to go back to an all-English experience in Vietnam. And so armed with pleasantries and question words, we were able to ramble in the haphazard manner that has become our specialty.

One sunny Đà Lạt afternoon, our mission was nem nướng and the Crazy House. Nem nướng are those roll-your-own spring rolls I mentioned in our earlier discussion of the genre, and they’re particularly a favorite in Đà Lạt. Restaurant Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc is around the corner from a much bigger and flashier place, but the internet said to go there, and so we did. Dũng Lộc is a small, six-table affair, and there’s only one thing one the menu. The question is, how much do you want. The answer: all of it!

We were slightly daunted by what we were served: three plates, one with pickled vegetables, another with a pile of green herbs and leaves, and a third with crunchy fried things and barbecued pork sausage. So we spied on the table next to us, and were caught by a delivery woman who had just popped in. She cheerfully showed us the order of things and how to roll it all up, while laughing at our cluelessness. Cảm ơn, lady! Thanks!

From here, I knew the Crazy House was close, though we were literally on the edge of our map. But it’s quanh đây somewhere. So we wandered, asked for directions, stopped for drinks, asked for directions. Xin lỗi, tôi ở đâu trên bản đồ? Excuse me, where am I on the map?

The Crazy House is a local architect’s vision of a Burger King Play Place for adults. A wonder in poured concrete, the house has ribbons of stairways and paths for visitors to explore. And it’s under active expansion. Crazy House is not really safety proofed for young children, so it was mostly grownups poking their heads through the Hobbit-y doorways, and picking their way up and down the steep steps. I love this kind of thing. What’s the reason behind this building? There is none! (Nominally, the Crazy House is also a hotel, but it doesn’t seem like a very restful place to stay with all that spectacle going on.)

After we’d had our fill of crazy, we were back out on the street. It was 5 o’clock, time for the home-from-school rush. Kids in matching uniforms burned off the last of their energy: chatting, running, pushing, lugging home as-big-as-me portfolios and instruments, negotiating for snacks. We joined the throng surging towards the center of the city until we were back in a neighborhood that we recognized. And then it was our snack time.

Just down the hill from the Central Market, facing the river, there’s a row of food stalls with a beautiful garden of purple flowers serving as a buffer between the eats and the road. At a small soup place, I tried out some more Vietnamese. Tôi muốn [pointing]. I want this. Cô có bán bia, không? Do you sell beer? I’d like to think the saleswoman appreciated my effort, although she did fine with the Chinese couple who spoke to her in English.

And one of the first language lessons we’ve learned in our travels still holds true: a smile and some friendliness can take you pretty far. At the same soup stall, a granny and baby stopped in to say hello. Not to us, of course, but when baby took a second to check us out, we waved and made silly faces. He was into it, and Peter sealed the deal by sharing a piece of his rice cake with the little guy. Shortly thereafter, granny and baby left, now including us in their goodbyes. It was a small thing, but moments like this are grounding, and help us to feel connected to the community around us when our own home and friends and family are so far away.

Vietnamese is difficult. Mandarin is difficult. For our students, English is difficult. But just to try and communicate — even if you get it wrong — is so worth it. And so I’ll leave you with this, from one of my last Vietnamese lessons: Xin lỗi. Cửa hàng tạp hóa ở đâu? Tôi muốn mua nước suối.

Apr 8, 2015

Living the life at the Villa Pinkhouse

The people in our (temporary) neighborhood

The cutest little VWbug of course belongs to the cutest hostel in Dalat
The cutest VW bug, of course, belongs to the cutest hostel in Đà Lat. Pinkhouse forever!
Our accommodationsThis is how to do a coffee break
The neighborhood coffee shop was adjacent to the Easy Rider office, offering convenient parking for all.
We had a sweet little balcony in our roomOur view from the balcony
Our room at the Villa Pinkhouse had a sweet little balcony, left, overlooking a quiet neighborhood, right.
Meatball banh mi
Eat bánh mì every day!

The Villa Pinkhouse, our hotel in Đà Lạt, is down a small alley at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city. Its neighbors are another hotel, a primary school, an outpost of the Easy Riders motorbike touring company, and a small coffee shop. It’s run by a lovely family in which all of the young men speak fairly fluent English, and the older members smile and speak happy Vietnamese. We loved all of Đà Lạt, but this area especially spoke to us.

The coffee shop just across the way from the hotel. This was not one of your grab-and-go affairs, but a French-y kind of cafe, where one sits and chats for hours. We spent a crisp, cool morning there at one of the low tables out front, watching the neighborhood wander by. Delivery people, children and parents, tourist arrivals, fellow coffee drinkers, friends.

Vietnam is big time about the coffee. It’s the number two exporter in the world, behind Brazil, we were told many times. At home, coffee is brewed strong — with or without a stripe of sweetened condensed milk — through a three-part tin contraption that sits on top of your tiny glass. At the coffee shop, another patron showed us how to stop from making a wet, brown mess by resting the finished filter in its own lid, rather than directly on the table. It’s satisfying to both the gadget- and caffeine-loving parts of my brain.

We met a lot of friendly folks down that alley, despite its small size. There was that Easy Rider who gave us the world’s softest sell on a trip out into the countryside. “Sorry. We already have plans.” “Oh well. Have fun with your other tour guide!” Consistently those guys — who are an institution in Đà Lạt, as are their copycats — were super nice the many times we met them around the city, but also super relaxed about not making a sale.

And then there was the lady selling bánh mì from a cart at the mouth of the alley. She spoke no English, but we had a good chat anyway as she prepared for us a wonderful pork meatball sandwich. She and Peter had similar beaded bracelets, so they were instant friends. And I managed to put together the right words in Vietnamese to explain that we wanted one sandwich and one plain baguette. Oh, and how much is that? Language success!

Down the hill a bit was another hostel — Đà Lạt actually hosts a lot of visitors, but don’t call it a tourist trap. We’re all living like locals. Locals with a lot of free time, that is. Anyway … This place had an open-air cafe, and it was a great place to sit with a glass of Đà Lạt wine. We went with the red: extremely light-bodied with a mild fruity taste. As we sat, we could watch across the street as the children of those business played. One afternoon, someone received a delivery of wooden planks with which the kids barely resisted whacking each other. They watched us, too, and eventually built up the courage to start yelling hello.

Our little slice of the city was good to us. Good food, good drinks, good people. A perfect home away from home.

Apr 6, 2015

The abundance of Đà Lat

To market, to market

Dalat from the river
Beautiful buildings in DalatAt the central market
The central market saw a lot of action, from both tourists and locals alike.
Looking down on the market from the hillPotted plants at Dalat's flower gardenIt's avocados!
The flower garden was pretty and green, but not more so than the city that surrounds it.
Greenery around the cityA side street with brightly colored buildingsThis was our backyard!A little coffee shop where we stopped for a drink
As a city, Đà Lat is just so cute!

Vietnam is like an elongated S that snakes its way up the east side of the Indochina Peninsula. Saigon is near the bottom, and the city of Đà Lạt is a few inches north on the map, which represents about an eight-hour bus ride or an hour-long plane ride.

Đà Lạt is up in the central highlands, so despite its southern latitude, it’s temperate all year round. They get a lot of rain in the summer and blue-sky days in the winter. And all this geography adds up to an incredibly fertile plain, which means fresh produce is king here. (The people at our hostel in Saigon, when they found out we were coming here, really talked up Đà Lạt’s flowers, but you can’t eat flowers. Usually.)

This is why we’re here,” I wrote in my day-one Đà Lạt notes. A French baguette with butter and local strawberry jam. Simple, but perfect, and my breakfast every day we were there.

The Central Market also featured heavily in our time there. It was your traditional Asian wet market — fresh fruits and veg, straight-from-the-farm herbs, slaughtered-that-day meats. Peter went wild for the gigantic artichokes, and I drooled over the healthy green avocados. There were ripe strawberries with which you could have started a really messy food fight. Oh, and so much dill! We have none of these things at home.

We passed through the market just about every day — sometimes for just a look, other times to pick up a snack or to sit for a bite at one of many prepared-food stalls on the periphery. Vendors there, well accustomed to foreign tourists, ranged from friendly to indifferent — much more laid-back than their wheeler-dealer Saigon counterparts. When we stopped to buy some dried fruits and vegetables, the woman kept giving us free samples as she filled our bag; try the durian, the sweet potato, the dragon fruit.

Outside the market, the city itself was quite green. Đà Lạt’s winding roads were lined with lush lawns, gardens, and trees. Then there was the spot on our map just marked “flowers.” It turned out to be a kind of botanical garden, but all of the vegetation was potted plants. It was pretty, but given the quality of the municipal landscaping outside, it also seemed a little unnecessary. We later advised a fellow traveler that she could skip it. I guess we’re giving the same advice to you, should you find yourself in this part of the world.

But, in all, we were completely charmed by Đà Lạt. Shortly after we arrived, we made plans to extend our stay by another three days, giving us a full week there. Some magazine said that Đà Lạt is Vietnam’s premiere local honeymoon destination, and it’s easy to see why. We were in love with it, anyway.

You've got to come out to the lake